Fresh off two convincing B.C. high school record-setting championship runs a week earlier, Lake Country’s Taryn O’Neill had fun beating the best the United States had to offer on Friday in Seattle.
And she has the scars to prove it.
The Okanagan Athletics Club member, coached by Canadian Olympian Malindi Elmore, outran the top runners south of the border to win the Brooks PR Invitational two-mile event in an impressive time of 9:54.40.
O’Neill, 17, in the lead pack of six runners for most of the race, was in second place going into the bell lap and took over the lead with about 150 metres to go. Looking over her shoulder for challengers on the final straight stretch, she cruised to the win over a charging Camila Noe of Bozeman, Mont. (9:54.95).
Katelynne Hart of Glenbard West, IL, the pre-race favourite who went into the competition with a personal best of 9:52.02, led the way for more than half the race, but she couldn’t shake five other runners — including O’Neill — in the field of 11.
Despite running in unfamiliar close quarters and in tight formation for nearly the entire event, O’Neill said it was the most enjoyable race she’s run this season.
“I had a lot of fun in the pack like that . . . I rarely get that kind of opportunity,” said O’Neill, heading to Villanova University in Pennsylvania this fall. “It was very rough — lots of elbows — and my shins got a little scratched up from the leaders’ spikes — but that’s the best part! I love rough races like that!”
O’Neill nearly took a tumble with about 700 metres to go when leader Jacqueline Gaughan of New Hampshire stumbled in front of her. But O’Neill, running stride for stride with Hart in second place, kept her composure, nimbly sidestepped Gaughan on the inside, and stayed on course.
“That was almost expected with the behaviour in the pack — there was lots of jostling,” noted O’Neill. “I didn’t let it impact me at all and snuck into first for a while.”
In second place starting the final lap, O’Neill said it was a perfect place for her.
“I felt comfortable there, but I knew it would be tough finish with such a large and fast pack (five runners finished under 10 minutes). I wanted to wait until the 200-metre mark to start kicking. With about 150 to go, I just let loose and hoped no one would sneak up on me.”
O’Neill stuck to her pre-race strategy to claim what was to the Americans, a surprising victory.
“My plan was to just race competitively. I wanted to tuck in right behind the leader and just hang on. I knew that if I could keep myself in the mix until the bell lap I would be in contention for a medal.”
For the George Elliot Secondary School student, who set provincial records at the 1500 and 3000 metres at the B.C. School Sports high school championships in Langley, it was her first attempt at the two-mile event.
O’Neill’s time of 9:54.40 equates to roughly 9:13 in the 3000 — a huge personal best (now at 9:22).
The Canadian junior record for the 3000 metres (9:12) has been held by Brenda Shackleton of West Kelowna since 1984.
O’Neill is expected to resume racing later this month at the prestigious Harry Jerome Meet in Vancouver. And she will almost certainly qualify for Team Canada at the world junior track and field championships in Finland in July.
In the meantime, she’ll savour Friday’s win.
“It was a very fun meet, put on by an excellent company, and I’m very thankful to have been invited,” she said. “I was especially happy to show those “American phenoms” not to count out we Canadians!”